Asking Questions: Can uncertainty be more powerful than “I know?”
Submitted by admin on Fri, 01/02/2015 – 14:37
“I know this church is true. I know Joseph Smith was a prophet. I know the Book of Mormon is true. I love my mom and dad. Nameajesuschristamen.”
At this moment I cannot say that I KNOW, unreservedly, that any of these statements are true. That is, except the part about loving my mom and dad. That hasn’t stopped me from saying all of these words at various times in my life, though. Testimony began in childhood, with faith given to me by my parents, much like an heirloom watch. I valued it, and when I bore my testimony I really meant to say that I believed in them. I believed in their faith. I wanted them to be proud of me.
Later as a teenager, I kept saying the words but more because I hoped they were true than anything else. And yes, I still wanted to make my folks proud.
The “I know it’s true” years gave way to an enlightening, if uneasy “I don’t know” period in young adulthood during which I explored alternatives to faith. In college I began to train my logic and I learned the discipline of facts. My intellect grew during these years but while my mind expanded, my spirituality dwindled.
Outside school, I became interested in history and could see patterns and pitfalls that have plagued organized religions. I lost my balance and felt seasick when it came to my church, also a bit resentful. Skepticism grew inside me, cracking open the casing around my faith. I couldn’t help but wheedle and pry until it came apart. All at once, the sprockets went flying and broken bits of my belief would never fit again. The watch stopped working. When it did, I convinced myself that it never had worked, all a sham or an optical illusion.
This “I don’t know” period was ending and I found a new angle of repose. This time I cycled into another form of “I know,” only the opposite. Now I said, “I know it’s NOT true,” and with just as much gusto. The sharp minds around me seemed certain and I admired them, much as I had admired my parents before. Wanting to be good gave way to wanting to be smart. My learning tapered off.
But did I know?
When your timepiece stops working, when your foundation cracks, you have to examine each aspect of life anew and decide what to believe. You experiment to see what works and what does not. Well. I found out what did not work. When my experiments failed and my pride finally caved, I asked God for spiritual help and tiptoed back to church.
This time I exercised caution, not plunging headlong into commitments of fact. My confidence was battered after vacillating between the equally strong statements “I know it is” and “I know it is not.”
This time when I went back to church it reminded me of that intellectually curious period of young adulthood. I had a spiritual awakening and I felt free to ask hard (and hence great) questions. They mostly began with “I wonder…”
I now believe that if you can tolerate ambiguity enough to ask earnest questions, great breakthroughs are available. We can learn so much when we become like children, inquisitive and open. Confidence can stunt growth because truly, what is interesting about what you already know? Not much. Close the case.
Perhaps all this assurance is what causes the sleepy feeling that often drifts over Mormon congregations during so many services. It can feel like like we are just marking off our three hours from an endless checklist of duties. Seriously, listen to the pallid singing of some hymn circa 1860 that nobody knows, much less likes. Where is the fervor? The joy that music and spirituality should inspire? Even the good songs barely get a rise. Going to church too often leaves me unsatiated, like trying to pass off a snack bag of Lay’s and an Oreo as lunch. Plenty of calories, right? I did my time on Sunday, I’m good bro.
Perhaps I am only justifying that I some up short in the testimony department. Maybe this is how I tell myself that I’m okay. Still, I find myself most alive on the Sundays when I bring genuine curiosity with me. When I land on a really interesting question, I find my senses quickened and I am exhilarated to find that lessons feel directed precisely at what I sought.
I get it, though. Venturing into “I don’t know” territory can feel unnerving, like standing atop a precipice. It is scary for a reason; it is scary because such leaps can be dangerous. As an experiential learner myself, I am painfully aware that not all understanding comes the easy, academic way. The sage says, “Good judgment comes from experience.” The pupil asks, “Then how do you get experience?” “Bad judgment.”
Uncertainty can also be taboo. We are taught that saying the words leads the Spirit to testify that the statement was correct. Maybe so, but rigidity can squelch conversation. If you are halfway astute, you’ll pick up on which questions are okay to bring up in Sunday School, and which are not. It’s fine to ask about scripture trivia (it makes you look smart), but don’t get too obscure (it makes you look weird.) Questions asked by teachers are meant to steer discussions toward consensus and personal reflection, not curiosity. And, for the love of Pete, don’t ask why Joseph Smith’s other wives are not mentioned in the lesson manuals.
Yet, I do believe there is room for doubt, even if Relief Society isn’t the place for the thorny stuff. The very premise of our faith began with James 1:5: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.”
Okay, that’s enough for one day. My previous post shared a personal experience in asking for help. Today introduced the idea of asking questions, but I ran out of room to give examples. So next time I’ll share one small story about a time I asked a good question and gained an unexpected insight.